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Despite His Diagnosis, Dr. Ettleman Finds Gratification in Serving Others

Written by Adam Zewe

Robert Ettleman, DDS '80, isn't letting Parkinson's disease slow him down. Though he was diagnosed with the debilitating condition eight years ago, Dr. Ettleman continues to serve patients through the nonprofit organization he established, Gulf Coast Dental Outreach.

After he was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2005, Dr. Ettleman faced some heart-wrenching choices. The debilitating nature of the disease made it impossible for him to continue practicing dentistry, so he retired and sold his practice. However, he still felt a burning desire to improve the oral health of patients. He and his wife, Janet, decided to launch Gulf Coast Dental Outreach in 2007 to provide vital dental care for underserved adults in the Tampa, Fla., area. "I had 20-plus years of clinical knowledge, but I couldn't use my clinical skills because of my Parkinson's disease. So we decided to see if we could make a difference in the area with this program," he remarks.

Every Friday, Gulf Coast Dental Outreach opens its clinic inside Dr. Ettleman's former practice. Since the new owners close their office on Fridays, they agreed to offer their space to the nonprofit. Volunteer dentists, hygienists and assistants from across the state collaborate to provide an array of dental services, including restorative treatments, non-surgical periodontal care, crowns and dentures. Poverty-stricken adults pay just $25 for each office visit. "We don't offer free treatments because we are not an entitlement program. We want the patients to have some ownership over their dental care," Dr. Ettleman says.

Originally, Dr. Ettleman planned to keep the clinic small and only open a few times a year. Now, more than 100 dentists volunteer regularly at the clinic. They treat 25 patients each Friday and have provided dental care for more than 4,000 adult patient visits over the past five years. Gulf Coast Dental Outreach restricts its services to adults because few adult dental procedures are covered by Medicaid or Medicare. When the economic recession was at its height, demand for the clinic's services skyrocketed. "A lot of programs are getting cut, so there are not a lot of places for people to turn. At one point, we were the fastest-growing clinic of our kind in Florida," he states.

Dr. Ettleman has shared the Gulf Coast Dental Outreach model with other nonprofit dental clinics that are opening throughout Florida. The clinic's success has also been recognized by a myriad of Florida organizations. Recently, his work earned him the Community Hero Award from the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team. This recognition was particularly momentous, since it included a $50,000 donation/grant by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation to Gulf Coast Dental Outreach.

For Dr. Ettleman, the awards aren't as satisfying as the knowledge that he is helping people who are truly in need. "Gulf Coast Dental Outreach is a little more work than I originally planned for, but it is also very gratifying. One door closes and another door opens up. I found that this is my calling," concludes Dr. Ettleman.

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